Are you a chronic doodler? Do your notes from meetings have a border of puppy faces, three-dimensional cubes, or some other artwork in the margins? Don’t be embarrassed by your proclivity to draw, color, or simply move your pen around the page making designs everywhere. In fact, and hold onto your hats for this, new research suggests that even a little time spent engaging your inner Picasso can influence your brain to give you a more positive outlook.
The study, which took place at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, found that coloring, drawing, and doodling make us feel more relaxed because they activate the reward centers in the brain. A pool of 26 adults was recruited by the investigators. Eight of the subjects identified themselves as artists, and the remainder had no specific artistic background.
All of the subjects wore headbands equipped with functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) technology that measured blood flow in various parts of the brain. With the headbands on, the participants were provided paper and markers and given three sessions of three minutes each for artistry. They had breaks in between, during which time they were told to rest their hands. In the first session, the volunteers were instructed to color in a mandala; in the second, they were permitted to doodle within or around a pre-marked circle; and in the third, they were given free reign to draw. Their headbands remained on throughout the sessions as well as the break periods.
During each of the artistic activities—in just three minutes’ time—blood flow increased in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. In contrast, during the rest periods, the blood flow returned to its normal rate. The prefrontal cortex helps control the brain’s reward pathways and contributes to our emotions, decision-making capabilities, and motivation. Therefore, an increase in blood to the region indicates that we would feel rewarded by the activity that prompts it.
Interestingly, doodling around the circle resulted in the greatest average increase in blood flow, followed by freestyle drawing, and coloring offered the least. But the differences between them were small enough to not be statistically significant. However, when the self-described artists were separated out from the others for analysis, there was an anomaly noted. While the artists were affected in similar ways to the non-artists by doodling and drawing, the artists actually had a decrease in blood flow from the coloring activity. It might have been due to the limitations presented to their creativity or frustration at the lack of time to complete the task in its entirety, but their brains reacted differently.
After the final session was complete, the subjects were asked to report their state of mind, both in regard to their drawing activities and how they were feeling about themselves. The responses were overwhelmingly positive, with indications that they felt they had more good ideas and improved problem-solving abilities than they had before their art sessions. In fact, a number of participants expressed a desire for more time to be artistic.
Ultimately, even though the sample size of the study was too small to give us any definitive conclusions, the outcomes were clear enough to suggest that some time spent drawing, doodling, or coloring is not a waste. Stimulating the brain’s reward pathways can produce encouraging results in the way we think about ourselves and our capabilities. And let’s face it, doodling is a much better way to achieve this than by mindlessly watching TV, begging for likes on social media, using recreational drugs, or obsessively thinking about food.
So, it may be worthwhile to spend a few minutes here or there with a pencil and paper to potentially brighten our mood and get our synapses firing with ideas. Sometimes just that little shift in attitude can be enough to motivate you to success. For example, if you’re feeling a creative block or just not seeing the solution to a challenge, you might be better off putting it away and giving yourself five or 10 minutes to do nothing but doodle or draw. It might not appear to be the most productive way to spend your time, but that may just be the thing that gets you over the hurdle and across the finish line—you know, the one you just drew in your doodle.